Chet Holmgren Explains Why The Thunder ‘Have Nothing To Be Happy About Yet’

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard to imagine that Chet Holmgren‘s rookie year in the NBA could be going any better. While an injury kept him from suiting up during the 2022-23 campaign, Holmgren has been a revelation for the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. The team entered the All-Star break with a 37-17 record, good for the second-best mark in the Western Conference. If you said you saw that coming at the beginning of the season, absolutely no one would believe you.

Holmgren, meanwhile, is a near lock to earn an All-Rookie First Team selection, he has a real case to be named the league’s Rookie of the Year (he’d be the first player to win it since the Thunder moved to OKC), and he’s fit like a glove as the starting center for an exciting young team spearheaded by an MVP candidate. And yet, in the face of all of this, there is one overarching thing that Holmgren believes.

“We have to continue focusing on getting better, understanding that the job’s not finished,” Holmgren told Dime at the Panini Prizm Lounge during All-Star weekend. “We have nothing to be happy about yet. We haven’t accomplished anything in the grand scheme of things. You look around the league, there’s people that have done a lot more than we’ve done. So, we understand that. We know that 54 games doesn’t mean anything. What really means something is what you do after those 54 games and all the way to the end of the season.

“So, we’re focusing on getting better every single day,” he continues. “And hopefully, that puts us in a good spot.”

There’s a near-impossible balance for teams like the Thunder to strike. Not every team can resist the urge to feel excited about anything and everything when they’re exceeding expectations and suddenly hear themselves mentioned as a championship contender. The sobering reality that perspective brings isn’t always welcomed, and yet the 21-year-old Holmgren has plenty of it — for example, when I misspoke and already said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is an MVP, he quickly asked if I’ve “seen the script already” before pointing out that I was “speaking as if it was a done deal already.” (For the record: He had the kind of smirk that comes when an athlete knows they can mess with the person shoving a recorder in their face, even if he was being serious about not putting the cart before the horse.)

As Holmgren tells it, the Thunder take an egalitarian approach to making sure everyone keeps that perspective, which falls in line with how they approach most things.

“No one person’s most responsible for anything on our team,” Holmgren says. “We have a great group of guys and a great group of leadership on our team. Everybody holds everybody accountable, and everybody starts with themselves, too — making sure that we’re all prioritizing the right things, from winning, getting better, working hard, making smart decisions on and off the court, whatever it might be. We don’t wanna do anything that’s gonna take away from the goal that we’re gonna reach.”

During our conversation, Holmgren autographed cards for Panini as part of his partnership with the brand — “Hopefully they get to the right and most deserving fans,” he says, while noting seeing his cards is, “pretty cool.” It was all part of a busy weekend for the former Gonzaga standout, who also competed alongside Thunder teammate Jalen Williams in the Rising Stars Game as part of the team led by Jalen Rose which won the whole competition.

All of this is coming on the heels of the NBA’s version of a redshirt year. After getting taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, Holmgren suffered a foot injury during an appearance at Jamal Crawford’s CrawsOver Pro-Am league that sidelined him for the entirety of the season. Like Ben Simmons in 2017-18 and Blake Griffin in 2010-11, Holmgren is the rare rookie who got a year in the league to prepare himself for when he stepped onto the floor — which let him get healthy and refine his craft as a basketball player.

“I worked extremely hard last year, day in and day out,” Holmgren says. “I didn’t waver from the plan or the vision, I stuck true to it. And at the end of the day, the process is always gonna win. If you cheat it, it’s gonna bite you on the rear. So, I tried my best not to cheat it at all and I felt like I did a really good job of that, and it’s helped me this year.”

So far, the results speak for themselves. He’s averaging 16.7 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 2.6 blocks in 30.1 minutes per game while shooting 39.3 percent from behind the three-point line. The list of rookies that can say they’ve averaged 16 points, seven rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 2.5 blocks a game is Holmgren, Tim Duncan, and Victor Wembanyama. The list of players who can say they’ve hit those benchmarks while shooting 39 percent from three is Holmgren and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94, when he was named NBA MVP and led the Houston Rockets to a championship.

If Holmgren’s going to end up being an MVP candidate, that’ll come a little farther down the road. Right now, Gilgeous-Alexander is the Oklahoma City player in the hunt for that individual honor — in the latest version of ESPN’s MVP straw poll, Gilgeous-Alexander is comfortably in second behind only Nikola Jokic.

Basketball is a game of five players working in unison to make one another better, and that’s particularly true when it comes to the relationship between a point guard and a center. Holmgren has played with some exceptional guards in his basketball career — in high school, he played alongside Orlando’s Jalen Suggs, and at Gonzaga, he was teammates with Indiana’s Andrew Nembhard. He knows what great guard play looks like, and is quick to note “it’s always easy to play with great players who have the want and the will to do what they do.”

Even with that acknowledgement, Holmgren understands that there’s a uniqueness to Gilgeous-Alexander’s game.

“He has such a different play style,” Holmgren says. “He’s really Kobe-esque in the way he plays, it’s a lot of self-creation, tough shot making, a lot in the midrange, which, you don’t really see that archetype anymore. On top of that, he plays at a really high level on the defensive end. It’s just a combination of things that you don’t really find in many players, and I think that’s what makes him so tough to guard and makes him such a good player.”

It’s difficult to not be optimistic about what the future holds for the Thunder in just about every respect. At the same time, there’s no guarantee that success is an inevitability, something that Oklahoma City understands better than any other franchise. The last time they had a young team filled with homegrown stars in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, that trio made the NBA Finals once and lost, then Harden got traded, Durant eventually left in free agency, and despite his best efforts, Westbrook couldn’t bring them back to those heights before he was likewise traded.

Perhaps things will be different for this group of young Thunder stars. It’s hard not to get excited and think about what could happen in the future. Maybe Gilgeous-Alexander will win an MVP or two, Holmgren will bring home the Rookie of the Year award, and those two will be joined by other teammates like Jalen Williams on All-NBA teams for the next 15 years. Maybe the NBA Finals will return to Oklahoma City. Maybe this group will be the one to finally raise a banner in Paycom Center. Maybe we’re witnessing the early days of a dynasty that will come to define the next decade-plus of professional basketball.

That’s all impossible to know right now, though. All anyone can do is take things day-by-day and watch one of basketball’s most exciting young teams continue to grow alongside one another. It’s what Chet Holmgren would prefer we do.